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Syrian Talks Next Week With Opposition Absent
International

Syrian Talks Next Week With Opposition Absent

The UN special envoy for Syria has vowed to take fragile peace talks into next week despite a walkout by the main armed opposition, a breakdown in a truce and signs that both sides are gearing up to escalate the five-year-old civil war.
The opposition declared a “pause” in the talks this week because of a surge in fighting and too little movement from the government side on freeing detainees or allowing in aid. Nearly all of its delegation left Geneva, Reuters reported.
But UN envoy Staffan de Mistura said he had no plans to call off the negotiations, the first in five years of conflict to include some rebel factions. He said a ministerial meeting of world powers was urgently needed to get the talks back on track.
“Bottom line, I plan to continue the proximity talks, but at the formal level and at the technical level until next week, probably Wednesday as originally planned,” he said.
A fragile ceasefire in place since February was still in effect because none of the sides had renounced it, he said, but it was “in great trouble if we don’t act quickly”.
The talks at UN headquarters in Geneva aim to halt a conflict that has allowed for the rise of the self-styled Islamic State terrorist group, sucked in regional and major powers and created the world’s worst refugee crisis.
De Mistura now says 400,000 people have been killed in the war, far higher than the previous UN toll, usually given as 250,000. He said he had no proof of the higher figure but the estimate of 250,000 was two years old and no longer valid.
The war was tilted in Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s favor late last year by Russia’s intervention.
The White House has expressed concern that Russia has repositioned artillery near the disputed city of Aleppo.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said on Friday that the decision by the opposition High Negotiations Committee to quit Geneva was not a loss for anyone, except the HNC itself.
“If they want to ensure their participation (in the peace talks) only by putting ultimatums, with which others must agree, it’s their problem,” Lavrov said.
“For God’s sake, we shouldn’t be running after them, we must work with those who think not about their career, not about how to please their sponsors abroad, but with those who are ready to think about the destiny of their country.”
Moscow and Washington sponsored the fragile cessation of hostilities that went into effect on Feb. 27 to allow talks to take place but has been left in tatters by increased fighting in the past week.
A warplane crashed southeast of Damascus airport on Friday, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the conflict with a network of sources on the ground. It said the cause of the crash and the fate of the pilot were not clear.
The IS released a video claiming to have shot it down. Footage showed fighters around burning plane wreckage, part of which had a Syrian flag painted on it. Reuters could not independently verify the video.
Russia’s Interfax news agency quoted a Syrian military source saying it crashed due to technical malfunction.
Further southwest in Hama province, warplanes targeted rebel-held areas in the strategic Ghab plain that borders Latakia province, Assad’s coastal heartland.
Insurgents announced a new battle in Latakia earlier this week, which they claimed was in response to ceasefire violations by the government side, launching fierce assaults there. Fighting raged in the area on Friday, said the observatory.

  Political Issues
Endorsed by the UN Security Council, the Geneva peace talks marked the most serious effort yet to resolve the war, but failed to make progress on political issues, with no sign of compromise over the question of Assad’s future.
Government negotiators say Assad’s presidency is non-negotiable. Underlining confidence in Damascus, a top Assad aide reiterated its view that local truce agreements and “destroying terrorism” were the way toward a political solution.
The HNC, which is backed by western nations and key Arab states, had this week urged more military support for rebels after declaring the truce was over.
All the main HNC members had left Geneva by Friday, leaving a handful of experts and a point of contact behind.
Syria is now a patchwork of areas controlled by the government, an array of rebel groups, IS and the well-organized Kurdish YPG militia.

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